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Mastiff, Page 2

Tamora Pierce

  Once we cleaned up, out of habit we gave our blades a check, in case they needed a smith’s work. I had a spare sharp-stone, so we honed our daggers to the Smith God’s standard. The thunder rolled off while we were still working. Rosto talked a bit about the doings of the Court of the Rogue. He’d had a serious rebellion two winters back, after the bad harvest of 247, but these days few cityfolk balked at his rule. Most of his problems now came from hard coves who entered Corus thinking to challenge its Rogue.

  “I’ll have to start making examples, Beka, you watch,” he told me after an account of several duels. “I don’t have the time to sort out every new Tom that comes swaggering into the Dancing Dove.” He looked at me. “You’re tired. Think you’ll sleep tonight?”

  I finished yawning. “Aniki told you.” Aniki and Kora had switched off nights, watching over me.

  “Did you think they wouldn’t?” He tucked his last dagger into a hidden sheath at the back of his waist and collected the basket where he’d placed the dishes. “I’ll return the clothes—”

  I shook my head. “Give them to someone that needs them. I’ll send the rest to the Goddess’s temple.” When I can face the chore, I thought. It was one thing to see Holborn’s clothes draped and bunched on Rosto, another to fold them, breathe their scent, and tuck them into a basket to give them away.

  “All right, then,” he said. “Aniki will be in later. You get her if you need anything.” His black eyes were fierce as he looked at me. “I mean it, Beka.”

  I went to him and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Rosto. You’re a good friend.”

  He left me then. I finished cleaning up. I took it in mind to write in this journal afterward. It seems to be one of those things I should do to prove to myself that I did not crawl into the grave with Holborn today.

  Saturday, June 9, 249

  Pounce roused me in the dark. Though it was just his paw on my eye, I came as wide awake as though he’d bitten me. It’s time to wake up, Beka, he said.

  “What’s going on?” I asked him, tossing my blankets aside. “I was having my first sleep in near a week—”

  Achoo started to bark.

  Diamlah, Pounce told her. Achoo went silent right off. Pounce told me, You can sleep on the ship.

  I was about to ask “What ship?” when I heard the sound that had set Achoo to barking. Someone was coming up my stairs. He was known to Aniki, Kora, or me, or the guards never would have allowed him to pass. Whoever it was, he banged on the door of the rooms where I normally slept. I looked about for my baton, only to remember it was in the rooms I had shared with Holborn. I took up two of my daggers and went to the door, clad only in my nightgown.

  I undid the locks and opened it a crack. “What’s your business?” I demanded of the stranger’s back. “Speak up! And if you wake my neighbors—”

  He turned and I fell silent. It was my lord Gershom, clad in a dripping oilcloth cloak over a blue tunic and black breeches. He held a wide-brimmed rain hat in one hand. His face was grim. “Let me in.”

  I stood aside. He shut the door as I lit a pair of lamps. By that bit of light I could see Achoo and Pounce sitting by the bed, watching my lord. “Forgive me, Beka, but you’re my best choice,” he told me softly. “Dress and pack what you would need for a woods Hunt and a stay of three days. Bring Achoo. Pounce may come if he cares to. I’m leaving a horse tied in the shed in back. Take it to Peregrine Dock as soon as you can. Tell no one where you’re bound or who the summons came from, understood?”

  “Yes, my lord,” I whispered. Nothing good came from orders in the night.

  He put the hat on his head. It and the cloak turned him into no one in particular. He was out my door and gone before I could move to open it for him.

  “Everythin’ all righ’, Beka?” Aniki asked drowsily from the landing above. I looked up. She half dangled over the rail, her long gold hair and her sword hanging from one drooping hand. Her eyes were swollen with sleep.

  “Go to bed,” I told her. “Something’s come up.” I remembered my pigeons. “Will you feed my birds till I come back? I’ll leave coin for the food on Kora’s table.”

  Aniki saluted me with her blade and stumbled back to her room. I closed my own door and rushed to dress and to pack. I put on my uniform and my hidden knives. My lord had not said I was to wear cityfolk clothes. Into my heavy pack I stuffed pads, underclothes, my extra uniform, tooth sticks, warm stockings, my comb, and other everyday gear. Into my shoulder pack I put the gear I needed for my work. Most of it was already there—my piece of spelled mirror, the special gloves that make it possible for me to handle things while leaving no magical traces, the clay that can turn so hard as to make a lock useless, insect-banning balm, lock picks, healing salves, Achoo’s brushes and medicines, packets of dried meat strips I use to reward her, my sharp-stone and blade-cleaning gear, my gorget and arm guards, and other bits and pieces. My leg guards and round helm went into my larger bag. My baton, sap, purse, and water flask went on my belt. I shrugged on my shoulder pack, then covered it with my cloak. I put the coin on the table so Aniki and Kora could feed the pigeons while I was gone. At last I donned my hat, hoisted my larger bag, and walked out the door.

  “Achoo, tumit,” I said. She came, eager for whatever excitement Lord Gershom’s strange visit had promised. She was an old hand at late knocks on the door. This made our thirteenth night call since we became partners in 247, Achoo’s services being much in demand throughout Corus and even in Torhelm and Groten.

  Pounce stuck his head out of an opening in my larger bag. I had not seen him get into it, but that was not new. “If you walked, you would be less weight for me to carry,” I told him as I set the bag down to lock my door.

  I would also get wetter than I will be already, he replied.

  The horse was where Lord Gershom told me he would be, a fine sturdy gelding who looked no happier to be out in the rain than I was. Still, he let me strap the larger pack behind his saddle with no fuss at all. At least all the riding I’ve had to do in recent years meant that, tired as I was, I could do it properly.

  The horse and Achoo sniffed each other nose to nose as I worked, until I was in the saddle. Then we were off, trotting as fast as I dared through the dark streets. There was scant light to go by, only a lantern hung over the door of the odd eating house or drinking den. I stayed on the dark streets, keeping my lord’s orders in mind.

  The ride gave me a chance to think. The things that went through my mind made me nervous and shivery with eagerness. My lord had come for me himself. That meant whatever he called me to, it was big. He’d said himself I was his best choice and asked for Achoo, so I suspected the one who mattered was Achoo. Every one of the scent-hound handlers I’ve met, from our chief here in Corus on down, has said she’s the best they know.

  My lord Gershom stood watch with some Palace Guards. One of the guards took my horse, while a sailor wearing the navy’s white-trimmed blue tunic took my heavy bag. I kept my shoulder pack. Lord Gershom led Achoo and me down the dock. If the sailor noticed the purple-eyed black cat sticking his head out of my bag, he gave no sign of it.

  Now I was alert. Some part of me had wondered if mayhap Lord Gershom had come for me as a way of apologizing for calling me out the night I’d buried my man. Now I saw it was no such thing. It was big, with my lord meeting me at the dock and walking me to a ship. That was going far for comfort. Then the ship came in view at the end of the long dock, and I blinked, to make certain the water was not fooling me.

  A peregrine ship waited for us. It might pass for an ordinary ship at a quick glance, but for the bird’s wings painted along its sides. They showed in the lantern light from the ship’s prow. I swallowed. I’d never been on a peregrine ship. Few had. They were the Crown’s most precious vessels, saved for important messages and the greatest emergencies. And now I was going to travel on one.

  Suddenly I wanted to turn and run for home.

  Lord Gershom rested a hand on my shoulder. I di
dn’t realize I had stopped. “Easy, girl,” he said in that slow voice that always steadies me. “If I can ride one of these curst bounce-buckets, so can you.”

  I took a deep breath and followed him up the gangplank. To the mot in oilcloth who waited for us he said, “We’re all present.” Two sailors who’d been standing to the side trotted off the ship and began to slip the mooring ropes off their cleats. My lord pointed to a shelter at the rear of the deck. The sailor who’d taken my bag was already returning from there without it. He got to work on the sails. My lord cupped my elbow in his hand and steered me to the shelter, while Achoo galloped inside. The mot climbed stairs to a deck halfway up behind the shelter and stood there beside the pilot, one hand held out flat before her. With her index finger she drew a circle on one palm, her lips moving. I felt the wind pick up. It filled the sails as the sailors who had slipped the mooring ropes jumped aboard and pulled up the gangplank. Then I stepped into the shelter.

  My partner Tunstall was there already, stretched out on a long, cushioned bunk along one side wall. He grinned and put his feet on the floor, but my lord said, “Don’t stand, Mattes. You’ll bang your head.” He removed his hat and cloak, taking the other side bench. Achoo lay on the deck, panting.

  Tunstall reached up and hugged me, dripping wet as I was. “Are you all right, Cooper?”

  I hadn’t thought if I was all right or no since my lord’s knock had brought me to my door. “I’m up and about,” I replied, looking around. Our baggage was tucked and secured under the bunks, which were covered with fleeces. Straps hung off their sides and from the hull beside them. I’d heard the passengers on these ships traveled under magical sleep, strapped onto their bunks to keep from flying off of them. I gulped and hung up my cloak and hat, then set my shoulder pack on the bunk for use as a pillow and backrest.

  Tunstall nodded. “A Hunt will do you good,” he said as I worked. He looked at Lord Gershom, who had taken a silk bag off a hook on the wall and was rooting through it. “Do you know what manner of Hunt we’re about, my lord?”

  Lord Gershom fished out three leather bracelets and hung the silk bag on the hook once again. He tossed one of the bracelets to Tunstall and another to me before he fit the third on his own bony wrist. “I’ve no idea of anything, and I’ll not hazard a guess, Mattes,” he said. “The news I had called for utter secrecy and the best and smallest team with a scent hound I could assemble.”

  Tunstall nodded, the wise old owl. “With Elmwood off to Naxen, that leaves Beka.”

  I looked at Achoo. “You must tire of dragging me along as deadweight,” I told her. I didn’t mean it, not really. I’ve proved myself plenty of times to those who said our capture of Pearl Skinner three years back was a lucky start. Of Lord Gershom I asked, “What are the bangles for?” I held up my leather strap. I could see letters writ on it and dyed, but they were in mage script.

  “Slumber and seasickness,” my lord replied, his eyes twinkling. “It’s not such a problem here on the river, but trust me, you two, if you’re not wearing these when we strike the open ocean, you’ll be puking up everything you ate for the last week. Better to sleep out the trip.”

  Tunstall and I looked at each other and hurriedly fastened the bands about our wrists. “But we’ve gone to sea now and then,” Tunstall said. “I puked a bit the first time, but the other times went well enough. Cooper took to it like one of those pelicans.”

  “You weren’t on peregrine ships,” my lord replied. “These things go so fast—they’re blown by mage-winds, you know—they fly so fast that they don’t sail over the waves, they bounce off of them. And since we’re on emergency orders, the ship’s mages have instructions to take us as fast as the ship can bear.” He stretched out on the bunk he’d chosen, looking as comfortable as could be for all his earlier complaints.

  Tunstall was already stretched out on his bunk, hands folded neatly over his belly. “Better them than me,” he murmured.

  Three sailors came in, bringing a cool breeze and rain at their heels. “You’re good and settled,” one of them, a mot, said. “We’ll finish up.” She looked at Pounce and Achoo. “Can they be put together? We can strap them under the bunks.”

  “They’re old friends,” I replied. I watched as they opened out a net of straps secured to the deck under an unused bunk. Once they’d put a fleece on top of it, I gave Achoo the order to lie down. Once she was settled, Pounce curled up with her. Two of the sailors did up the straps above and below them, tucking them into a space that had enough room for them to sleep comfortably.

  I will ensure that we sleep, Pounce told us. The sailors did not seem to hear. I don’t enjoy travel like this, either.

  Thank you, I thought to him. I didn’t want these sea folk to think any Dogs were cracked in the nob because I spoke when no one had spoken to me.

  “ ’Twill be a curst uncomfortable ride,” Tunstall remarked as the youngest sailor tucked a flat pillow beneath his head.

  The mot who had spoken first grinned at him. “You won’t notice, my lad. Once we tell the passengers’ mage you’re all snug, he’ll be putting you and them of the crew that ain’t needed right off to sleep. You can dream of me, if y’like.” She patted Tunstall’s cheek and left us, her cackling laugh trailing behind. The other two followed her, their grins wide enough to show what teeth they were missing.

  “You don’t know my woman!” Tunstall called after her. “She don’t let me stray!”

  I blinked my filling eyes. Holborn didn’t stray, either. I wish he had. It would have been easier to explain to my friends than he thought me a nag and a cold fish who was forever worrying about the future.

  Happily, the spell took us all before I could sink too far into my regrets.

  When I opened my eyes, the youngest of the three sailors was undoing my straps. I looked for the leather bracelet, and the cove grinned. “Took that off to end the sleep first thing, mistress,” he told me. “We’ve wake-up tea on deck. Your hound and cat is already out there with your captain. We’ll be at dock soon.”

  I blinked at him saying captain, until I realized he meant Lord Gershom. What could be so secret that my lord would not even use his proper rank?

  As the sailor turned to free Tunstall, I asked, “What hour is it? Where are we?”

  “ ’Tis nearabout noon,” the sailor replied, helping my partner to sit up. “We be in Blue Harbor.”

  “Blue Harbor near noon on Friday?” I asked. I still hadn’t quite put together all that had happened to me since my lord had knocked on my door.

  “Naw,” he said, undoing the straps on our baggage. “ ’Tis Thursday. Wouldn’t be worth our salt as a peregrine ship was we to be taking a whole day to get from Corus to Blue Harbor! Mind, we could’ve been here three hours afore this—we’ve done the trip in that time—but there was a nasty storm at Port Caynn. Threw us off. The mage lady were spittin’ like a cat.”

  I noticed that he didn’t use her name, or give his own. “How do you sailors manage?” I asked. “If we’re buckled down in here—”

  “Oh, we tie up to the mast,” the cove told me. “Each of us has one, see, and she eases off if we need to trim the sails. It’s narsty work, but we’re paid in gold, and swapped back to the reg’lar navy every three months. Out you go, now, both of yez. They’ll be needin’ me to dock.”

  Tunstall and I walked onto the deck. The sails were puffed out with a steady wind that was carrying us between the twin lighthouses of Blue Harbor.

  Tunstall leaned down to mutter in my ear, “I feel like I’ve been hammered, Cooper.”

  I had to admit, I was stiff and sore all over. Achoo was running up and down the deck, her plumed tail wagging. If she was sore, she hid it well. Pounce sat at Lord Gershom’s feet while he drank from a heavy mug of tea. One of the sailors brought a mug each for Tunstall and me before he got back to work on the sails. The ship was turning, the obedient wind following the changing sails as the vessel angled for the docks on the northwestern side of the h

  From curiosity, I set my tea on the deck between my feet and reached into my belt purse for my mirror, the one that shows me when there’s magic in use. I angled the mirror so I would see our former shelter and the wheel over my shoulder. When I looked at the surface, the blaze of light from the magic nearabout blinded me. It had not occurred to me that not only would the magic be extremely strong, but it would be worked through every splinter and fiber of the ship.

  I hurriedly thrust the mirror into my purse and waited for my poor eyes to recover. I reminded myself that the blessing of the mirror was that it seemed to show me all manner of magics, whatever they were for and no matter what their strength. That was scant comfort when my eyes were watering fiercely.

  “I always swear I’ll never take one of these ships again,” I heard Lord Gershom say. “This is my third peregrine trip this year. I’m bruised all over.”